Denise Roessle is euphoric when she learns that her son, whom she had lost to adoption twenty-six years earlier, has been matched to her through the International Soundex Reunion Registry. As the adult man replaces the fantasy child, though, anxiety replaces euphoria.
Denise was nineteen and living in Hawaii in 1969 when she became pregnant by a handsome Marine. After he reneged on his promise to marry her, her parents sent to a home in Los Angeles and arranged with a lawyer who specialized in placing children with Jewish families in New York to handle the adoption of Denise’s son. Erick Alan Janson became Joshua Goldberg, the son of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn.
The book is well written, moving along smoothly as Denise tells not only the story of her reunion but of discovering her mother's family. Denise's mother, who had been so insistent on the adoption that Denise feared telling her parents of the reunion, claimed to be an only child. Denise learns that her mother was actually one of nine children, farmed out along with her siblings when her father died. Denise’s mother is strict, straight-laced, and Denise becomes painfully aware of the similarities between her mother and herself. Eventually Denise's parents learn of Denise's reunion with Josh. Once these family secrets are out, Denise and her parents develop a positive relationship.
Within a few months into their reunion, Denise has second thoughts about keeping Josh in her life. He angers easily, cannot maintain relationships, is untruthful, and wastes money on baubles, leaving him chronically short of funds for necessities. He refuses to accept responsibility for his actions. As a teenager, he had gone through a succession of treatment programs, dropped out of school, used drugs, and lived on the streets. He married young and had two sons whom he and his wife put up for adoption. He divorced his first wife and married a seventeen year old girl who is now pregnant. Over the next decade, Josh divorces and remarries several more times.
Denise and Josh have an up and down relationship. He misbehaves; she cuts him off; he begs or demands to be in her life, he tries to guilt trip her for abandoning him; she lets him back in; he misbehaves. Denise questions herself: Is she too strict? Too much like her mother? Should she be more giving and forgiving? The book ends with little hope that Denise and Josh will ever have a healthy relationship or that he will get control of his life
Josh’s problems, although they may have been related to his adoption, are not unique to adopted children. Parents throughout history have struggled with how to help their troubled child, treading the line between enabling and abandoning.
Where do birth mothers fit into the mix? Before my surrendered daughter Rebecca and I reunited, I worried about finding her in a drug house, a waif, a street child. I envisioned myself as a heroine, saving her from a life of degradation. As the curtain falls, she embraces me as her true mother.
At other times, I envisioned her as a famous movie actress and I worried she would reject me. As the scene fades, however, she embraces me as her true mother. My daughter is not a drug addict; neither is she a movie star. She is, however, an altogether woman, with a successful career, a long marriage, and four wonderful children.
I don’t know what I would have done if she had been chronically irresponsible like Josh or schizophrenic like the son Patti Hawn wrote about in Good Girls Don’t.
When we birth mothers signed the papers, we not only lost all legal rights to our children but we were freed from all legal obligations to them. As a practical matter, however, many mothers cannot walk away from their children just as mothers could not forget them no matter how much they believed the social worker’s maxim, “you’ll forget and get on with your life.”
We have an obligation to our adult lost children, not borne from guilt at giving them up, but born from nature.